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By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist
Imagine this: Over the past seven years, DCPA Education’s AT&T High School Playwriting Competition has inspired the creation of 1,065 one-act plays. That’s, what, 30,000 pages of script? Three or four thousand characters who might otherwise not ever have been imagined?
Over that same period, DCPA Teaching Artists have introduced more than 20,000 Colorado high-school students to the craft of playwriting through 3,500 workshops in schools all over the state.
And overall, 22 of the best student-submitted plays have been presented as readings by professional and student actors as part of the DCPA’s annual moment in the national theater spotlight: The Colorado New Play Summit.
I like to call those cool cats "The Scenesters." Because it’s at their readings that audiences are likely to see some of the most raw, cutting-edge and contemporary stories the DCPA has to offer on any of its stages. Like in 2018, when Noah Jackson, a self-described “boy in a dress,” wrote a play about a non-binary teenager dealing with gender-identity issues and unaccepting parents. Jackson’s play, “Wine Colored Lip Gloss,” was the first story to address gender identity in the nearly 40-year history of the Denver Center.
“”It is awesome to see the power of teen writers putting their authentic voices out into the world," said Allison Watrous, the DCPA’s Executive Director of Education and Community Engagement. "These writers are the brave next generation of the American Theatre and beyond, and they are grappling with the great issues of our times.”
This past February, the three finalist playwrights offered up unapologetic, urgent stories of identity, tolerance, climate change and the world’s uncertain future. (And that was before the pandemic.) And they told them in tones ranging from comic to playful to wrenching. These are the kinds of plays that only teenagers are fearless enough to write.
Brandon Guo of Peak to Peak Charter School wrote a caustic comedy about a 16-year-old boy who is killed in a school shooting. And when he arrives in Heaven (unwillingly, by the way), he discovers that God is actually a cynical, university-style admissions officer. Guo was the second member of his family to be named a finalist in the DCPA's annual competition, following his sister, Kristine, in 2016. Watch ‘God’s Not Dead, He’s Just an Admissions Officer’
Connor Yokley of Highlands Ranch High School imagined a scenario where the Earth is facing an impending and irreversible apocalypse. His deeply genuine story explores how a few everyday Americans choose to spend their last living hours. “It explores what a person might need in their final moments, whether it is fulfillment, companionship or reassurance," he said. "It explores what we have to do to make peace.” Watch ‘Imminent and Disastrous'
Meghan Frey of Estes Park High School bravely spun Shakespeare’s greatest romantic tragedy as “Romeo and Julien,” the story of a high-school girl who’s in love with the star of the football team who’s in love with a boy named Julien. And that’s OK. And no one ends up dead because of it. Watch ‘Romeo and Julien’
What’s perhaps most remarkable about “Romeo and Julien” in terms of social progress is the fact that the playwright didn’t write the play as a way of working out her own issues. Instead, she said she wanted to understand others better, and with more compassion.
“Writing this play taught me a lot about the struggles, oppression and fear that LGBT+ kids have to face in their daily lives,” Frey said. “I have a whole new perspective and appreciation for the things they have had to go through and overcome so that they can finally just be themselves.”
The coordinator of the DCPA’s student playwriting program is 2017 True West Award winner Claudia Carson. The process starts with in-school workshops that are designed to encourage students to submit their own stories for the competition. All submissions are “blindly read” by a group of Teaching Artists and theatre professionals (meaning judges don’t know the name, school, gender or race of each playwright.)
It is worth noting that over the seven years of this competition, during which the national theatre community has finally turned its attention to the glaring problem of gender parity in American playwriting, 57 of the DCPA's 78 finalists have not been male, or 73 percent.
“It has been incredible to see such an amazing wealth of vibrant and insightful plays from creative and smart young women,” Watrous said.
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Video bonus: Meet the 2020 featured student playwrights
Video by David Lenk and John Moore.
Ten playwrights are chosen and celebrated as semi-finalists before the three winners are determined. In the week leading up to the Colorado New Play Summit, which is attended by top industry officials from around the country, each winning play is workshopped by a team of assigned theatre professionals, including both an experienced director and a nationally recognized playwright mentor.
During the week, the selected playwrights are challenged to dig deeper, find greater truth and constantly rewrite. And when the day comes where their plays are twice presented for the public, they are the stars of the Summit.
Each winner also receives a cash scholarship of $250, and each student's sponsoring teacher receives a $250 gift certificate for books, supplies or other teaching tools for their classrooms.
Two years ago, the DCPA added an additional reward: Each playwright gets to choose a place within their own community where the play is performed one additional time. (Usually they choose their high schools.)
The goal of the playwriting program is to build students’ confidence in their writing and open their eyes to eventual career possibilities in theatre beyond acting. The playwrights also gain a greater understanding for all the work that goes into creating professional theatre.
“This means the world to me,” Yokley said of being selected. “I’ve never been one to give myself praise. But even I couldn’t resist telling myself, ‘Yeah … I can do this. I can write.’ ”
What's the plan for 2020-21?
The eighth annual AT&T High School Playwriting Competition will go on despite the pandemic, and even though the 2021 Colorado New Play Summit has been canceled. DCPA Teaching Artists have been conducting virtual workshops this semester, and students are encouraged to submit their one-act plays for consideration no later than January 15, 2021. The three winning high-school playwrights will again have professionally staged readings of their plays, just not as part of the Summit. New this year: Middle-school students are encouraged to submit plays of no more than 10 pages. Three of those scripts will be chosen as "spotlight" selections and will be posted online for the public to read. Eligibility and submission details here. For questions, email email@example.com.
From left: Claudia Carson, Brandon Guo, Meghan Frey, Connor Yokley and Allison Watrous. Photo by John Moore.
The full cast and crew for the Colorado New Play Summit readings. Photo by John Moore..
The 2020 class of Scenesters, clockwise from bottom right: The playwriting team of Ruby Brown and Olivia Kelley; Omar Arevalo; Meghan Frey; Connor Yokley; Eliana Howes; Arianna Josue; Conrad Branch; Ellie Olsen; Angela Weddig, and Brandon Guo.